Markets, Infrastructure, and Locavores

It really is possible to eat entirely locally, or nearly so, if the right infrastructure is in place. New York has a huge network of farmers markets throughout the city, many of them year-round. There’s one by our apartment, and another by my office, which makes it easy to pick up eggs and vegetables, or whatever else we need from a local source.

Ironically, it’s much easier to eat locally year-round in New York than it was when I lived in rural Michigan, which is prime farm country for all sorts of things. Th local food supply – farmers markets, community supported agriculture, locally produced wine and beer – is plentiful and varied all summer long and into the fall, but things get a lot more sparse in the winter.

It’s not so much that there’s literally nothing local to eat, or that one can’t possibly grow or store local food for the winter. Winter squash, carrots, beets, and apples will keep for a long time, and some of the hardier greens (think kale) will keep going even after it starts to snow.

I think the problem has more to do with a disconnect between farmers and eaters over the winter: most people assume that nothing grows or overwinters in Northwest Lower Michigan, the farmers markets confirm this assumption by shutting down after Halloween, and the farmer-eater connection goes dormant until spring.

It doesn’t die off entirely – the wineries and breweries keep going, Food for Thought and the Cherry Republic keep selling jams and salsas made with local fruit, the local food co-op stocks local onions, garlic, and winter squash over the winter, I know of at least one farmer who ran a winter CSA while I lived there, and the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference program helps connect farmers to restaurateurs, grocers, and ordinary cooks and eaters.

Still, there are some major infrastructure gaps in both New York City, where the farmers markets keep going year round, and rural Michigan, where farmers produce a tremendous variety of crops during the growing season.

In New York, only Brooklyn and Manhattan have year-round farmers markets. Bronx and Queens have the same winter disconnect experienced by most of the country, and they have fewer farmers markets overall. It’s harder to grow your own food, though many people do anyway. If your apartment is dark, your lease prohibits growing anything on the roof or fire escape, and you’re still at the bottom of a community garden waiting list, growing your own food generally means breaking a few rules, especially if you’re keeping bees.

Cost is a huge issue that excludes many people from eating locally – or eating as locally as they’d like – though getting farmers to accept EBT (electronic benefit transfers, or food stamps) has made them more accessible to people with low incomes.

In Northwest Lower Michigan, the population shrinks in the winter as tourists, retirees, and the seasonal workers seek out warmer climes and work. It’s hard to imagine that the landscape could hold anything edible when you’ve shoveled half a foot of snow of your driveway for the past six weeks. Getting food from farm to eater in the winter is very difficult if most of the eaters don’t even know that the food is there, or that it could be there if farmers thought there was more demand for it. And there are probably other rules and infrastructure problems that I’m not aware of because I don’t run a restaurant or a grocery store or a farm there.

Supporting local farmers through our purchasing and eating decisions is an important piece of the puzzle, but infrastructure matters too. It’s much easier to eat locally when there’s a farmers market nearby, or when your regular grocery store carries seasonal, local produce, eggs, dairy, meat, and baked goods.

What local food infrastructure is in place where you live? What are the gaps? How might we fill or work around them?

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